Virtual sales meetings are here to stay, but there is still a collective concern about sustaining people’s attention in virtual sessions.
This is a valid concern because business decisions depend on memory, and memory depends on attention. It’s hard to build memories in someone’s mind unless they encode information, and encoding requires attention.
Virtual vs. Face-to-Face Meetings
Before sharing practical guidelines on how to sustain attention in virtual settings, it’s important to debunk a common myth: It’s more challenging to keep people’s attention in virtual meetings than in face-to-face meetings.
To address this myth, you must first be humbled by the fact that you never fully know if you have someone’s attention, even in face-to-face settings. Some people might seem like they are looking outward, but in fact, their focus is inward.
For example, someone might be looking right at you in a face-to-face meeting, but in the back of their mind, they are thinking about another project or a conversation they had with someone else. Some people are better at faking outward attention than others. If you’re married, you likely understand this.
There could be a slight advantage for in-person meetings because you might see signs that attention is waning, such as fidgeting, lack of eye contact, robotic nodding, blank facial expressions, or blatant multitasking. Even with multitasking, people have learned how to master “phubbing,” which is the act of maintaining eye contact while texting. All this to say that in-person meetings shouldn’t be viewed as somehow superior for keeping attention over virtual sessions.
However, there are some challenges that the virtual space brings more forcefully. It’s very easy to switch to another task without being noticed or hurting anyone’s feelings. From a business perspective, the negative consequence is that multitasking makes us slower, more error-prone and forgetful, and less creative—all important dimensions to closing business deals.
Distractions are another challenge in virtual sessions because they can happen more frequently, especially as people attend meetings from home. Humans seem to get distracted once every three minutes, and distractions not only impact attention negatively, but also impose a cognitive cost. Each time you return to a task, it’s harder and takes longer to refocus.
So how can you tackle these challenges? Here are three practical guidelines for keeping your audience’s attention during virtual meetings:
1. Shrink the world to fit the confines of attention
When you think about your listeners’ attention on Zoom, remember that there are limits. The mistake a lot of business communicators make is showing everything, thinking that the more they show, the easier the decision. In addition, just because you see what is important does not mean that someone else does.
Considering these two points, it is your responsibility to emphasize what must capture your listeners’ attention out of a large inventory of content elements. In other words, what is worthy of their attention?
There are two practical things you can do right away that will help, which stem from the neuroscience studies I’ve conducted over the past two years using Zoom meetings as stimuli:
Embed animation and annotation
This strategy works because the brain is drawn to motion. In one study, my team and I were able to show that when the presenter added annotation (i.e., drawing arrows or circles or typing on the slide) to animation (i.e., showing elements on a slide gradually with tasteful animation, such as fade and appear effects), participants paid attention to what the presenter considered critical.
This worked irrespective of people’s expertise on the topic, and the addition of motion did not make participants fatigued. This last point is worth mentioning because Zoom fatigue is often discussed, but we have not observed it when presenters use the techniques shared here.
Eliminate seductive details
In one EEG study, my team and I observed that when we included a decorative image in a slide where the text needed to be the most memorable element, the image had a negative impact on recall.
The immediately practical guideline from this study is to always ask the question: What must my audience remember? With your answer in mind, have the courage to cut what might detract from the important message.
2. Sequence content for optimal attention
In another recent neuroscience experiment my team and I completed, we wanted to research ways in which sequencing components of a business presentation impacts attention—and subsequently, memory and decision making.
Participants were divided into two groups, and then paired together and asked to watch a recorded presentation together while they were wearing EEG, ECG, and eye tracking devices.
The presentation included a sales pitch for a software platform. The advantage of scanning pairs versus individuals is that you can observe when their brains synchronize. This is useful in business because brain synchronization is associated with better collaboration and shared understanding—most likely due to people engaging in and paying attention to the same things.
In the experiment, the only difference between the two groups was the positioning of two thought-provoking questions. One group heard the questions at the beginning of the sales pitch and one group at the end. The middle of the pitch contained data and trends from the industry pertinent to the software application and insights related to this data. The details of the solution were presented next.
In the end, the presenter asked the viewers if they were willing to attend a follow-up meeting to hear more details and see a demo. We noted that people’s brains synchronized through the entire presentation when the presenter asked thought-provoking questions in the beginning.
Considering this observation, you might ask: What is a thought-provoking question, and how do I construct one? Think of a thought-provoking question as one that restructures someone’s understanding of a situation in a non-obvious way. It does not need to be a question that changes the world. It can be a question that changes someone’s perspective of the world.
For example, in the study, the software was related to a platform that enables smarter gift-giving to prospects and existing customers. The questions were: “How much do companies overspend on gift-giving efforts?” and “What if you could monitor these efforts with precision?”
To secure attention and decisions, consider asking questions in a way that tells the viewer something they could only do with your solution.
3. Take your time to explain complex concepts
Another attention myth can be debunked with neuroscience: The brain enjoys simplicity all the time.
It’s true that some simple things are easy to process and that the brain likes conserving energy. But after a while, the brain is ready to absorb something more elaborate. In addition, the brain synchronization mentioned earlier occurs more often in reaction to a complex stimulus, not a simple one, because the brain itself is complex. In our neuroscience studies, we often encounter this reality: When the stimulus is too simple, the brain tunes out.
But while there are merits to complexity, it cannot be rushed. Rushing through complex concepts leads to superficial processing, which negatively impacts attention and memory. Woody Allen put it best: “I took a speed-reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”
Using a fast pace through complex slides, for example, is a bit like speed reading. Furthermore, studies show that people who have developed speed reading also have trouble understanding information, especially if the content is challenging.
So, don’t simplify complexity; keep it. But slow down during the complex parts to allow your audience to think clearly about what they are processing.
Hold Your Audience’s Attention
These guidelines about attracting and sustaining attention are reminders you can use for your next virtual meeting. However, they can also speak to a bigger issue. As a society, we need to do something different in terms of allocating our attention. Collectively, we are exhausting our attention because we are soaked in information.
Constant stimulation builds a habit for a need to be fed with new information all the time. And when something does not change in our environment, we look elsewhere for something that does. We are no longer working within the limits of our attention. And we are getting too used to processing things superficially.
When we do our part and become more disciplined about directing our focus and avoiding fragmenting it, we can give our focus in a way that leads to depth and reflection to someone who has spent time creating an attention-worthy presentation. This benefits everybody.